In Slate’s Arrested Development TV Club, two fans will IM about each episode of Season 4 once they finish watching it. Today, technology columnist Farhad Manjoo and television critic Troy Patterson recap Episode 3, “Indian Takers.”
Farhad Manjoo: Everyone else has been disclosing how much they’ve watched so far, so let me do the same: I only just made it through this episode, No. 3.
I guess I could blame kids/the long weekend/the fact that I’ve been reading a good novel, but the truth is I’m surprised at my sloth. I’ve been watching Arrested Development since it was first broadcast on Fox, and I’ve been looking forward to more episodes forever. But so far, other than a few brilliant moments—the cast of Workaholics’ cameo in Episode 1—I’m disappointed. These first three have been pretty slow, bloated, and just not that funny. I liked this one a bit more than Episode 2, but there were still long stretches of boredom.
Most of that time, I was menaced by variations on this uncharitable question: What happened to Portia de Rossi’s face? Is there a doctor in Los Angeles she should be suing?
Troy Patterson: I, too, am only caught up to the episode under discussion. The first of this season I found baggy and sluggish. It seemed at the time to be wandering about in a confined space. Crammed in the dorm room with P-Hound, I got to feeling claustrophobic. But in the opening minutes of the second, I caught on (so I think) to the game and realized that I shouldn’t slag on the sluggishness; the bagginess is not a bug or accident but rather a deliberate change-of-pace move. Is this last act a bit meditative? Dirgelike? This comedy is either darker than I remember or grimmer than I realized. And this third episode—with its material about false prophets and gross profiteering tying into earlier themes—made the inescapable pessimism of this season clear to me. Agree or disagree?
Thank you for bringing up the potentially delicate matter of Portia de Rossi’s face. Yes, in comparison, the forehead of Nicole Kidman resembles the brow of a Shar Pei puppy. Should we suppose that its static quality reflects a choice of the performer or the character?
Manjoo: Yes, I agree. It is darker and more pessimistic, and I suppose that mood has to be deliberate, considering Hurwitz’s choice to set the season against the backdrop of the financial crisis. The episode’s best jokes are about that dark period—Lindsay and Tobias getting a mansion using a “Ninja loan” (no income, no job, no assets), followed by the rise of recession-era barter restaurants like CW Swapigans. De Rossi’s stretched face only makes the whole thing sadder, I think. She looks like a half-finished model home. Seriously, there were moments when I wondered if that really was her—if, to accommodate all those shifting schedules, they didn’t find a stand-in for some scenes.
We both agree these episodes are baggy and sluggish. Do you think we should blame the leeway afforded by Netflix? Would it have been improved if the writers had been forced to abide the standard 22-minute network clock?
Patterson: Oh, well, a mortgage-market collapse seems like an organic narrative destiny for this real-estate dynasty. Such wonderful upselling by Ed Helms’ Realtor! He was dressed in a sloppy shirt collar. The set was dressed with a certificate decorated with a rainbow. His mind was bare of anything but dollar signs. It was great that the man who moved the Fünkes into their McMansion, which echoed like a Xanadu made of tin, was not a con man but an idiot. It is as if the three of them shared a grand delusion of limitless appreciation. Not unlike America itself.
And the financial-crisis stuff is small change compared to the spiritual crises on offer. Having gotten to the “pray” part of Eat, Pray, Love—a book she surely didn’t finish—vain Lindsay first runs off to a subcontinental resort offering an “ego cleanse” spa treatment, then runs away with a would-be shaman who suffers from “face blindness.”
Wait? Is this plot point of “face blindness” part of a maybe-a-meta-joke about Rossi’s semi-recognizably? (I, too, wondered if it was really her—so much so that I turned to IMDb for enlightenment.)
Sure, the freedom of this format enables the bagginess, but free verse has its uses. The depressive quality of this episode stands in stark contrast to the mania of the first three seasons. I am impatient with the pace, but I admire the willingness to test the audience’s patience and the sitcom’s formal limits. Must we be gratified according to the schedule of commerce? Why not devote the time it takes to carve a headstone to give each character a proper send-off? What’s the rush?
I am eager to imagine that this fourth season will force viewers to challenge their assumptions about the first three. The pace suits the themes and moods and subjects: Decadence, entropy, meditations on cancellation. That Dan Harmon cameo was no accident.
Manjoo: Well, OK. Even though I’m not laughing very much (yet?), I join you in your admiration of the show’s willingness to test the sitcom’s traditional bounds. For all the pacing issues, it does feel like we’re building toward something that, at some point, could be pretty interesting; with each episode, a new piece of the narrative clicks into place, the puzzle getting a little less puzzling, the headstones a bit more intricate. Three episodes in, for instance, I feel like we’re building quite a mausoleum for Lucille. She hasn’t even had her episode yet, but she seems to be the butt of every other joke, and Jessica Walter (who doesn’t seem to have aged a day) plays it so well I hope it doesn’t stop.
So, as you say, what’s the rush?
My only worry is that I’m not laughing enough. Let’s not forget that this is supposed to be comedy, and Hurwitz’s explicit goal is to keep us in stitches. I’d be happier about challenging my cherished assumptions about the first three seasons if the challenge came with sharper dialogue and quicker punch lines. The Ed Helms scene was as fantastic as you say, especially “Just so you have it—because then at least you’ll have it.” And I loved Tobias’ mistaking a methadone clinic for a method acting seminar—a callback to the joke, from earlier episodes, that he’s the world’s first analyst/therapist, aka an “analrapist.” The face blindness gag also made me giggle (and it’s even funnier if you consider that meta-joke). But other than those, I wasn’t laughing for much of this. Once or twice I even checked to see how much more there was.
The other thing I missed in this episode was Michael. I always thought Portia de Rossi played best off Jason Bateman. For that matter, I think all the Bluths’ absurdities stand in starker relief when Michael is nearby. They all seem funnier against a straight man. But Bateman’s barely been around since the first episode. Where is he? Do you miss him, too?
Patterson: Oh, Lucille is the character holding this diffuse season together—the sun around which these barren planets eccentrically orbit. Is there such a thing as the dystopian ideal of the matriarch? The moment—the gloriously overextended moment—of her exhaling cigarette smoke into Buster’s mouth so that she can smoke indoors while under house arrest is rich with smoking-fetish Oedipus-complexity.
Manjoo: Yes, the smoking scene was one of the few times the slow pace of this season paid off—by the end, I was choking on the fumes. Then, this episode, we got a flashback to Buster’s time at Camp Kissamemommy, where he’s homesick for Lucille’s “champagne-glass breasts.” I’m half worried that by the end, Buster and Lucille will have gone too far. What do you think of Kristen Wiig? I like her; I’m hoping we get to see a lot more young Lucille.
Patterson: What I think of Kristen Wiig is, “I’m thinking of Kristen Wiig. She’s pretty cool.” But does her performance deepen our understanding of Lucille? On balance, I find these cameos distracting. They give the proceedings the flavor of a reunion tour or something. It is as if we are watching a ceremony: Arrested Development gets inducted into the Pop-Absurdist Hall of Fame, and we watch most famous fans sit in for a song like or two. As when, say, Pearl Jam sits in with Neil Young, the spectacle is not without its pleasures, but the viewer suspects that he is not necessarily experiencing all of them.
But what is this season? A postscript? A sequel? An envoi? Again, I am holding out hope that we are building toward a series finale that rearranges our feeling for what the show was. Something like Dale Cooper’s experience in the Black Lodge. And I am alert to signs that this season involves its share of post-operative foreshadowing. Here, when Michael asks Lindsay what she has paid to promise to testify that Lucille was a wonderful mother, Lindsay says that the answer is none: “No, Michael, I’m not a whore. I don’t get any of the money until after I do the disgusting thing.” The moment carried me back to the pilot, and the immortal claim made by Gob for the status of the illusionist: “A trick is something a whore does for money.” These Bluths have sold their virtue, and things are looking mighty bleak.